Of all the plays by William Shakespeare, none is so easily recognized as Romeo and Juliet. The ubiquitous tragedy has been recreated time and again in nearly every medium, with varying degrees of success. Though the theater is obviously the best medium in which to experience a play, television and movie adaptations have become the forerunners of play production. Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 production of Romeo + Juliet is the most modern version of the play, and some may argue the most creative, as well.
Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 adaptation is considered to be the most faithful of the films, though it is set in such way as to be less compelling than Luhrmann’s. Comparing the two films is an exercise in futility, in as much as they are both brilliant in their own way. We will find, through this essay, that they both stand as exemplary adaptations of Shakespeare’s classic play. Romeo + Juliet’s script, in Lurhmann’s effort, can be described in terms of brilliant cadence in the dialogue while retaining the classic language.
The telling of the tale is faithful, though somewhat obscured by the rapid-fire, Tarantino-esque dialogue of everyone in the movie besides Juliet. Close observers will find that the script has been truncated to exclude lines that extend the playing time of the film, while very little has been added to it. Obviously, the screenplay cannot be an exact transcript of the original, since certain elements would seem out of place in the modern setting, but a purist fan of Shakespeare could be slightly taken aback by the omission of some lines, and even entire sections of the original.
For younger viewers of the time, however, the script could not have been more effective in portraying the famous Shakespearean style of speech. Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli’s 1968 masterpiece, could not be more different from its 1996 counterpart in terms of faithfulness to the source material. Instead of the hip-hop culture, machine-gun cadence, the dialogue and story are told at a leisurely pace. From scene to scene, Zeffirelli takes us through a stunning, elaborately accurate reproduction of Verona, Italy, and tells the tale in a literal screen play.
Treating his cinematic effort as he would a theatrical production, Zeffirelli utterly encompasses every essential detail of the story’s timeless script. Not every viewer would be kept rapt by this film, however, as it tends to lag in certain scenes, as though in staying faithful to the source material, Zeffirelli allowed the film to become staid and dry. Moviegoers unaccustomed to Shakespearean plots and dialogue may find themselves losing interest in the film, as it sacrifices form for faithfulness. Cinematically, Romeo + Juliet is brilliantly inventive and vibrantly shot.
Verona, Italy, is substituted with Verona Beach, California, and modernized to the point of being visually unidentifiable as a play of William Shakespeare. Running at odds to practically every stage piece ever produced, Romeo + Juliet has a blistering, frantic, Guy Ritchie feel to it that oddly does not detract completely from the romantic thrust of the story. Being modernized, the film replaces the original swords with Sword pistols, heavily modified cars replace the typical pedestrian transportation, and the somber dress of most adaptations of the play is substituted with garish, baggy clothing accurate to the time of the film’s setting.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes give surprising depth to their roles, despite being young and inexperienced actors. What is lost in the dialogue is found again in the clever ways that the director reproduces some of the most famous scenes of the play. However, the modern setting allows little true feeling to come from the story of the two lovers, and little attention is paid to their plight. The frantic pace keeps the energy of the film at an exhilarating high, but does not relent in the necessary places to allow the viewer to truly sympathize with the title characters, as intended by the author.
By contrast to the 1996 version, Zeffirelli’s 1968 production is a slowly paced, artistically cinematic film with grand scenes of landscape and beautiful settings. Quite true to the original set and setting of the play, Romeo and Juliet reveals to the viewer an accurate and lush rendition of the dress and style of the times. The camera is used with a creative eye toward production value, and does little to involve itself in the action, as Luhrmann’s did.
What we are given instead is classic Shakespeare with masterful actors in comfortable, familiar roles, and standard camerawork that does nothing more than show us the action of the film. As with the dialogue, the pace of this film is sober, almost plodding, and much feeling is lost as the actors recite their lines in a rote tone. Though a purist reproduction in almost every sense, it nonetheless lacks in entertainment value for the general viewing public because of the static, lingering nature of the directing. Together, both films give are often at odds in terms of setting, costume, and plot devices.
In the 1996 version, the Capulets are shown wearing slick, dark clothing, while the Montagues are seen wearing Hawaiian shirts and bright colors. In Zeffirelli’s adaptation, it is quite the opposite, in that the Capulets are clownish in their dress, while the Montagues wear the more subdued attire. Lurhmann’s version has the families as corporate rivals, where Zeffirelli keeps the rivalry between the two wealthy families on a personal level. Mercutio plays a much more vital role in the modern film, while the older one gives him less importance until the confrontation with Tybalt.
As with two separate stage productions of a single play, differences in artistic interpretation are to be expected from two film adaptations of the same story. Technological and social advances allowed for Baz Luhrmann’s telling of the classic tragedy to take new, sometimes shocking twists and liberties. Where Juliet dies with a self-inflicted dagger wound in the elder film, in the modern one she dies of a gunshot. Romeo, assumed to be simply drunk with love at the costume ball in Zeffirelli’s film, is actually intoxicated on a popular club drug in the newest adaptation.
The main issue is that, no matter what liberties are taken with the source material, both films are important in their own right. Romeo + Juliet, though modernized and filmed at a break-neck pace, nevertheless reaches out to younger viewers with something tangible that they can relate to, once again bringing William Shakespeare to the attention of another generation. Romeo & Juliet, a film shot nearly thirty years before its successor, accomplished a similar feat, in that it brought classic theater to moviegoers without sacrificing the inherent quality of the story.
For the purist Shakespeare fan, or the viewer who enjoys a slower-paced movie with the actors carrying the story, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet is the quintessential film adaptation of the play. For the younger viewer, or the person who enjoys creative cinematics and clever nuances, Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet is perhaps the most important retelling of the timeless tragedy. In essence, both films, though startlingly different in countless ways, share the common ground of being masterful interpretations of the world’s most recognizable love story, and neither can be said to hold importance over the other.